Fresh Nutmeg Is Healthier & More Flavorful: Here's Why You Should Always Choose It
Not many people know this, but you can significantly boost the nutmeg flavor in your seasonal drinks and dishes with one simple switch. Rather than buying powdered nutmeg, buy the seed whole and grate it at the last possible moment.
Here's why this upgrade works.
If your first reaction is that this sounds painstaking and labor-intensive, stick with me for a minute. Since we use nutmeg in such small amounts, grating takes only seconds. You might even save time since you won't be digging through every jar in the spice cupboard until you finally find the nutmeg at the very back (because you haven't used it since last winter). And any extra work is worth it for the health and flavor benefits.
Nutmeg is highly aromatic, but its volatile aromatic oils are only stable when the seed is stored in its whole form. Once the seed is powdered, increased surface area means the oils are exposed to oxygen and they begin to degrade rapidly. These fragrant natural compounds are the source of many of nutmeg's health-supporting properties (particularly for digestion and the nervous system1), so they're worth protecting.
A signature winter flavor, with benefits.
Nutmeg's aromatic oils make it a potent carminative2, aiding digestion and helping us absorb the nutrients in food. As I note in my book, The Herbal Kitchen, traditional cultures have long used nutmeg to tame diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and other digestive problems. (I'm hoping you won't have cause to test any of this out. It's just nice to know when a plant has generations of credibility behind it.)
More appropriate fodder for dinnertime conversation with one's extended family is the time-tested cultural wisdom of using nutmeg to spice winter's signature foods, from pumpkin pie to eggnog. Because our digestive capacity is linked to sunlight and circadian rhythms3, we have a shorter window to absorb nutrients in wintertime. Eating dinner earlier in the evening is one way to work with our bodies' rhythms in the season of long nights.
But it's also a season of celebration, meaning most of us will spend some time eating and drinking late into the night with family and friends. In these instances, fresh nutmeg can help ease the consequences, including indigestion. Nutmeg is especially helpful with dairy-rich foods, hence its frequent appearance in creamy desserts, eggnog, and cheese sauces.
In addition to supporting digestion, nutmeg has a calming effect on the nervous system4. In my work as an herbalist, I've seen it help many people with insomnia—but even if you don't have trouble sleeping, who wouldn't welcome a bit more calm and relaxation?
Whether we're talking about flavor or health benefits, the difference between using pre-powdered nutmeg and fresh-grated seed is akin to the difference between watching The Nutcracker live versus streaming it on your phone. The first is an experience; the second isn't nearly as memorable. I hope you'll give the real thing a try.
How to source and use fresh nutmeg.
Many grocery stores carry whole, dried nutmeg. Look for brown, nutlike seeds about the size of a grape. If your grocery store doesn't have whole nutmeg, find it online from a brand you trust.
When you're ready to use it, crack the shell by placing the nutmeg on a cutting board, laying the side of a heavy knife over it, and pressing down with both force and care. Once the shell is cracked, peel it off.
Nutmeg is best consumed in small amounts, just as you'd find it in your favorite winter recipe.
Grate the nutmeg using a microplane grater if you have one. If not, use the smallest holes in your cheese grater. If you're hosting guests, use this opportunity to add a performative flourish as you grate fresh nutmeg atop their eggnog. They'll remember the gesture as much as the intense flavor and aroma. Whether you share the health benefits, I'll leave up to you!
Kami McBride is an experienced herbalist, educator, and author whose well-known book, The Herbal Kitchen, has helped thousands of people unlock the healing potential of their spice cabinets and herb gardens. She developed and taught the herbal curriculum for the Complementary Medicine Department at the University of California School of Nursing, and she founded the Living Awareness Institute in 1994 where she offers online herbalism courses to students of all skill levels. Kami lives in California with her husband and children, and she can often be found concocting seasonal recipes in her kitchen and spending time with her favorite plants outdoors.